Casing The Joint: The Inside Skinny On Winter Fishing On The Upper Arkansas River

January 2021

For some of my earlier posts on fishing the Arkansas in winter, see links below:

https://hooknfly.com/2020/12/12/arkansas-river-reverie/

https://hooknfly.com/2018/01/06/ringing-in-the-new-year-with-some-big-bad-boys-an-arkansas-river-bash/

The upper Arkansas around Salida is not the first river most Colorado anglers think about for fly fishing when winter descends.   More likely they will be part of the crowds from Denver and Colorado Springs that elect to chase trout on the tailwaters of the South Platte or the lower Arkansas near Pueblo.  By the photos they post on Facebook of impressive PB rainbows and browns, they do pretty darn well.

But those rivers and their throngs are just not my cup of tea. Fortunately winter is the time to escape the summer hordes that overrun my home water the Arkansas—rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders, float fishermen, and other assorted hoi polloi. Come December is when I get my PBS (personal best solitude) plus feisty wild fish on the Big Ark. But to be successful requires a vastly different approach than the tailwaters noted above—the Ark is a free-flowing, high-elevation river with colder water and where weather is more important on a day-to-day basis, not to mention the preferred trout victuals that differ as well.

In consultation with intergalactic fishing gurus and through keen observation, casing the river carefully since the 1990s (and more often just through the school of hard knocks), I have come up with some insights for the winter angler who wants to get away from it all while still scoring some good fish.

Getting The Lay Of The River:   When I write of the “upper” Arkansas, I mean the productive stretch from just above Salida downstream about 42 miles to Texas Creek.  Further up north towards Buena Vista and Leadville much of the river is either private or freezes over more frequently.  You can catch fish there, but not on as a consistent basis.  I divide the upper Ark into three distinct stretches.

First is the area upstream of Salida called the Big Bend where the river makes a hard turn to the north.  It extends down to the Stockyard Bridge just below the town, a total distance of about 10 miles. 

The Big Bend Stretch West Of Salida

The valley opens wide here which allows a lot more sun to reach the water. While it gets more pressure, the Big Bend offers more comfortable and consistent angling days than the other two stretches because of abundant sunshine throughout the winter. However if the wind is gusting, the Big Bend is more open this making casting more difficult. The State of Colorado holds several fishing easements here to provide good access, and the stretch also offers stunning views of the Mount Shavano and the Collegiate Peaks not to mention easy access to libations and chow in Salida. The valley’s main fly shop, ArkAnglers, is located nearby along U.S. 50 on the outskirts of town.

Great Scenery To Go Along With Plentiful Sunshine InThe Big Bend

The second stretch runs from the Stockyard Bridge down to the hamlet of Cotopaxi, approximately 25 miles.

Second Stretch Features More Canyon Terrain

There are a few areas in this stretch where the valley widens, for example around Howard, but for the most part it is characterized by steep canyon walls on either or both sides of the river that limit the amount of sunlight. As a result, deeper and slower sections are often frozen over, and the hours of fishing often very limited to two or three midday. Public and private lands are intermixed throughout this section. Please note that there are special regulations in place in the middle section from the Stockyard Bridge (Chaffee CR 102) just below Salida downstream 7.5 miles to the confluence with Badger Creek–artificial flies and lures only and all rainbow and cutbow trout must be returned to the water immediately.

Steeper Gradient And Towering Canyon Walls Call For Different Tactics On Stretch 2
Hefty, Hard-Fighting Bows Call Stretch 2 Home

The third section runs seven miles from Cotopaxi to Texas Creek. Here the valley opens up again in a number of places, although not as wide as above Salida, and the gradient is somewhat less steep. Just above Texas Creek there is a prime stretch with BLM public access where the canyon walls peel way back on both sides of the river to allow abundant sunshine to warm the water.

The Wide Open Valley Just Above Texas Creek Offers Plenty Of Sunshine And Public Access

For more information about public access on the three sections, see the excellent web site of ArkAnglers, our fine local fly shop at www.arkanglers.com.

CASING THE JOINT:  I have come up with eight tips or rules for winter fishing on the Big Ark, gleaned from my forays up and down the river conducting piscatorial research the past 30 years.  Here they are:

Rule #1—Pay Attention To Water Temperature And Levels: While I always look ahead for days where mild daytime temperatures are in the forecast for one of my outings, it is actually more important to focus on night temperatures in the valley two or three days before you fish. While Salida is called the “banana belt” because its daytime temperatures are much balmier than South Park or the Gunnison valley to the west, it still sits at 7,500 feet and nighttime temperatures can plunge into the single digits. When they do, you can count on many sections to freeze over and for slush ice and floating icebergs to make fishing annoying at best and often impossible.

Ice Can Form Quickly In the “Banana Belt” After A Couple Of Cold Nights

I find that when two or three days preceding my foray nighttime temperatures are in the mid-twenties followed by daytime highs in the upper thirties and above, I can count on more consistent and pleasant fishing. As an aside, note that temperatures above Salida are often warmer at night than the lower two sections.

Water levels are another factor to consider. I find flows between 225 and 300 cfs are ideal to maintain adequate flows and depths in productive pools and runs while allowing the adventuresome angler to cross to the other side of the river (away from US 50 highway) where there is much less pressure. (See Rule #4 below.) To find current water levels on the Arkansas at Salida and downstream at Wellsville, google “Colorado Water Talk” and search for the gauging stations at those two locations.

Finding Sun-Bathed Pools Is Key–Especially In Canyon Stretches

Rule #2—Sunny Stretches Are Almost Always Better Than Those In The Shade: In bright, sunny Colorado, most anglers who fish in the summer know to seek out honey holes with some shade where the trout can hide away from prying eyes and enjoy cooler water. In the winter it’s just the opposite. Rarely do I catch fish in deeper holes, where one might expect fish to be hanging low in warmer water, IF those holes are shaded most of the day. Many times I have been reminded of this when a deep pool I have been catching fish out of goes immediately to sleep when the sun dips behind a ridge or canyon wall. Might as well head home then.

And don’t be surprised if in a shallow stretch in full sun you find fish, particularly brown trout, warming themselves while they pick off food floating by. Stealth is the key in these stretches as well as a tailored shallow-water nymph rig as discussed below.

The best stretch to find sun is the Big Bend above Salida where the valley is several miles wide and the sun bathes it early then until late in the day (i.e., 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. ) Fortunately, there are a number of state fishing easements that provide access to the Ark up- and downstream from the Big Bend. On the other two stretches below Salida I find it a good idea to scout the day before to pinpoint specific sections that bask in the sun and what time old Sol hits the water (usually not before 10 a.m.) and when it disappears (typically by 2:30 p.m. at the latest). A good rule of thumb is that north/south stretches will get more sun longer than east/west ones. Also, if the canyon walls on the side of the river opposite the highway recede, that means more morning sun. If on the highway side they recede it indicates more afternoon sun.

Once you locate a sunny stretch of water, the traditional approach is to dredge heavily weighted nymphs through deep holes off the main current where the water is warmer and the cold-blooded, slow-moving winter trout don’t have to expend as much energy to grab a meal. That tactic generally works when the weather has been cold for an extended period, but there are exceptions. Warm weather in the winter—say in the 40s and 50s—will have trout venturing into shallower areas–sometimes only a foot or two deep–to soak up the warming sun and even into faster-moving riffles to pick off caddis larvae and stonefly nymphs zipping by downstream in the early afternoon. Several years ago during early winter warm spells I caught exactly zero fish in holes deeper than four feet. Most were caught on unweighted nymphs in water 2-3 feet deep.

Rule #3—When You Catch A Fish, Stay Put:  During the winter, trout are usually concentrated in or near deep holes for warmth and safety.  If you catch one, you can pretty much bet more are there.  I plumb the depth of these pools, but also recognize the fish will venture out in adjacent runs carrying more food, especially when it’s sunny. 

Work Those Deep Pools And Adjacent Runs In The Sun Thoroughly!

I skip most fast stretches and long, shallow slicks that rarely hold winter trout. When you do approach a likely looking pool, take it nice and slowly. Winter water is exceptionally clear, and often I spot fish finning contentedly in front of me, giving me a leg up for placing that perfect cast. One other lie that shouldn’t be overlooked is under ice shelves extending out into a pool.

Trout will often hide under the shelves for cover and dart out to snatch food tumbling by.  Every year I catch a few nice ones by placing a cast a few inches from the edge of a shelf and letting it drift slowly and enticingly by these crafty fish.

Rule #4—The Grass Is Greener And Fishing Better On The Other Side:  A corollary of Rule #2 is to get on the other side of the river away from Highway 50 that parallels the Ark below Salida.  The south/highway side of the river gets far more pressure than the less accessible north.  At lower flows in the winter, wading across the river is possible with all due care, and there are bridges and roads here and there that give access to the north shore.

Rule #5–Assiduously Avoid Sections Near Campgrounds: I avoid sections of the Arkansas within one-fourth mile of commercial RV campgrounds and several camp sites designated by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), a 152-mile stretch of the river under joint state and federal management. The AHRA is a well-intentioned idea and government vehicle created in 1989 to protect and manage the upper section of the Arkansas River. While it has notched some major accomplishments like maintaining better water flows and reining in the flotillas of rafters, the result (when coupled with state’s recognition of the river as a Gold Medal water) has sometimes been the opposite. Compared to 30 years ago before the AHRA, hordes more people descend on the area, especially on weekends. Unfortunately the AHRA and associated state and federal agencies simply do not have enough people to manage the area effectively–indeed I have never run into a ranger or other AHRA personnel on the river, only emptying trash bins at rafting put-in points. Fortunately the AHRA has started to limit scattered dry camping to recently improved rustic sites with tent pads and metal fire pits. However, the river in these areas still gets pounded.

img_3993-1
Beautiful Stretch Of Ark Near AHRA Campground–With Fish MIA

A good example of what has gone wrong in the early 1990s can be seen on a mile-long section of the river below Wellsville.  It was my favorite stretch, hard to get to, and loaded with good browns and rainbows.  Then the AHRA improved access, built some attractive campgrounds for RVs, and designated a couple of primitive camping areas along the river, but imposed no restrictions on bait fishing or limits on the size of fish that could be caught and killed beyond the state’s minimal requirements.  Surprise! This once great area is practically fished out compared to the good old days.

On a trip there last fall I had two strikes in four hours, caught one fish, and saw only one other where I used to see and catch and release dozens in the clear water.  To make matters worse, the land has been stripped of downed timber for firewood and paths cut willy-nilly up and down the steep banks.  The area has been loved to near death.  Colorado is predicted to add another million people in the coming decades.  I wonder whether the body politic will be smart enough to protect what we have and even add more parks and wild areas to the public realm plus fund the caretakers to watch over them??  Ok, enough pontificating.  Back to the fishing.

Rule #6:  Walk Softly And Carry Two Big Sticks–I always carry two rods on the Arkansas.  In the winter on the first I rig an 8 ½ foot #4 rod with two small nymphs about 2 feet below a featherweight yellow yarn strike indicator with no split shot. At times I will add a small shot and a small bubble. 

I employ this rig to target fish in shallower, slower runs off the main current using smaller caddis (#18) and stonefly nymphs (#12-16). On the second, an 8 1/2-foot #5 weight heavier rod, I tie on a weighted (#10-12) stonefly nymph trailed by a #16-18 caddis nymph. See Rule #7 below for more on fly patterns. To this rig I add a plastic bubble strike indicator and a couple of BB split shot. The strike indicator is set high on the 5X leader to allow the nymphs to dredge the bottom in deeper holes. It is critical to experiment throughout the day with depth and weight on each of these rigs.

Rule #7: Caddis And Stoneflies Are The Favorite Winter Meals—In contrast to the South Platte and winter tailwaters where the food ranges from tiny midges to larger leeches, it’s important to keep in the mind that caddis and stoneflies dominate the trout diet on the Arkansas. That’s not to say occasionally you will see a late afternoon midge hatch and even witness a few risers or that a midge nymph won’t work, especially on the warmer upper section, but day in and day out caddis and stones are the go-to flies. For caddis I prefer #16-18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva or one of my own creations, a beadhead green hotwire CDC caddis larva. For larger stones I go with a #10-14 halfback stone, a twenty-incher, or a conehead golden stone with legs. On the lighter nymph rig I will substitute a #14-16 Tung Teaser as the stone imitation. Standard midge patterns such as red and black zebras (#18-20) work well on occasion.

Clockwise From Top Center: Halfback Stone, Beadhead Sparkle Caddis Larva, Red Zebra Midge, Conehead Stone, CDC Caddis Larva, and Tung Teaser.

Rule #8—Don’t Forget Warm Togs And Other Essential Gear:  It goes without saying but is still worth a mention–even on a day where the air temperature is in the 40s or 50s, the water in the Big Ark will still be ice cold, near freezing. 

The Well-Tailored Winter Angler

Consequently, I am a big fan of old-fashioned neoprene waders which are apparently a bit out of style. I bumped into a couple of younger anglers on the stream in last November who asked me what I was wearing–they had never seen or heard of neoprene waders. Believe me, they are much warmer than light-weight breathable waders no matter how many layers you put on underneath.

Secret Neoprene Wader Cache

I wear fishing pants and long johns under the neoprenes to stay toasty warm. And don’t forget socks–at least 3 pair (liner, wool, heavy wool). Up top I can usually get by with a polypro t-shirt, polypro long-sleeve shirt, nylon fishing shirt, and a light rain jacket. I slip on a buff over my head and wear a heavy fishing cap. I stuff a pair of fingerless fishing gloves in my vest just in case along with a stocking cap.

I also strongly recommend felt soles or cleats on the Arkansas which features odd-sized river rocks to stumble over and a strong current even when low. I have recently added a four-piece collapsible wading staff to my basic gear to help avoid slipping and taking a dunking. The wading staff is not only a life saver in the river but also in navigating the steep and often snow-covered slopes down to the water, especially in the middle section, as well as the slick ice shelfs that must be traversed on the river’s edge to get to the water. Of course you will need a net to handle the 18” plus bows and browns you will hook if you follow these eight essential rules!

Looking Back On 2020: The Best, The Bummers, The Bloodcurdling….and Beyond

Early January 2021

Greetings to all my friends and readers. I hope your holidays were peaceful. Here’s wishing for all of us a great 2021. It’s been a very interesting and rewarding year writing my blog. One of the few benefits of Covid-19 was providing plenty of social distancing time to pen articles as well as to explore not only those remote places I love while conducting serious piscatorial research but also waters close to home that I had overlooked and new species of fish.

 I was gratified in January that 2020 kicked off with Southwest Fly Fishing publishing an article I wrote about Treasure Creek in southern Colorado, an out-of-the way stream high in the Rockies that is one of the few that harbors native Rio Grande Cutthroats. 

Chasing Native Rio Grande Cutthroats On Treasure Creek

After that things changed quickly as reflected in my next article in the May issue of Florida Sportsman about fishing safely through the Corona virus. 

You can find links below to both of the pieces. 

Treasure Creek: https://hooknfly48.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/treasure-creek-article-sw-fly-fishing-jan-2020.pdf

Fishing Through The Corona Virus (full article): https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/04/fishing-through-the-corona-crisis/

Apparently lots of other anglers had some time on their hands as by the end of the year over 43,000 people had visited my blog site with over 93,000 views, an almost 90% increase over 2019. Thanks to you all!

Among them were readers from over 70 nations ranging from China to Kenya to Finland to Brazil.  I will have to admit my readership from Russia plunged to only two, perhaps reflecting I’m off Putin’s watch list after publishing a not-so-flattering photo of him accompanied by some wisecracks in an article about fishing Saguache Creek a couple of years go.  Whew!  That obviously gave his minions more time for hacking.

All kidding aside, as we look forward to a year that just has to be better than the last, it reminds me there were lots of good things to remember about 2020.  So here is my annual retrospective on the best and the bummers of the past year.

Cream of the Crop:  Two things really standout as cream of the crop.  First, as you might imagine, for a septuagenarian grandpa, nothing can compare to spending time on the water with my sweetheart of a four-year old granddaughter Aly.  We started out in May catching some nice rainbow trout at Staunton State Park west of Denver.  A few months later she pulled her first yellow perch from Eagle Watch Lake in Denver.  A garden hackle lure was the ticket. But the moment I remember best was after she had practiced casting a few times in 2019 with her new spin cast outfit, I said to her let’s go fishing and you can practice casting some more.  She looked at me very seriously and said somewhat impatiently, “But Grandpa, I already know how to cast.”  And later that day she proved she could!

Another high point was the connection I made with my readers, making new friends around the country.   We exchanged emails and phone calls and are hoping to do some fishing together next year.  Thanks to  Randy, Wendy, JD, Jim, Chip, Dan, Bill, George, and others for your kind words.  Looking forward to hitting the water with you in 2021.  Just promise not to outfish me!

Most Gratifying:  Another yearly sweet spot is hosting an annual fishing trip in the Colorado high country with my erstwhile Florida fishing buddy Robert Wayne, Esq.  We are both what might be called elders of the angling community.  I get a real kick out of hosting Bob and guiding him on some of my favorite waters for a couple of weeks, even taking him to some of my top-secret creeks.  In 2020 Bob wanted to catch a cutthroat, a fish that had eluded him during his storied international fishing peregrinations.  We hiked a couple of miles into a high mountain valley through which flows one of my favorite streams, a Herculean task for two old codgers.  But when Bob fooled that handsome 15-inch cutt, the smile on his face was ample remuneration. 

Counselor Corrals Nice Cutt

Earlier in the summer, it was payback time to some fish in a high alpine valley that was also extremely gratifying. Two years ago I hiked about eight miles roundtrip to chase some giant cutthroat trout in Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. The trout were there as I had been promised, but to my great consternation for almost five hours these behemoths repeatedly turned up their noses to practically every fly and lure in my fly vest. With my tail between my legs and the odor of a skunk in the air, I left the lake vowing I shall return. Fast forward to June of 2020, and I hiked back into Lower Sand Creek Lake and exacted some measure of revenge. Fooling many large cutthroats that were cruising the shoreline, I had one of my best days ever on a high-mountain lake where, as experienced anglers know, the fish can be maddenly finicky. See for yourself: https://hooknfly.com/2020/07/25/return-to-sand-creek-lakes-revenge-of-the-skunked/

Another particularly gratifying episode has been the response to a series of my blog articles entitled The Best Fishing Books of All Time.  Over the past couple of years I have been heartened to see a cohort of younger anglers (AKA as anyone under 40 whom I call “young bloods”) taking up the sport, both men and women.  Hopefully, they will be the next generation of anglers who will not only enjoy the sport but fight to protect and preserve the waters we all cherish.  Thanks to a bout of annoying sciatica in October, I had time on my hands to write five articles in which I described dozens of my favorite books about fishing in several categories including “best literature,” “funny bone ticklers,” and “fish that shaped the world,” among others.  My goal was to introduce the young bloods to the grand tradition and history of our sport dating back hundreds of years.

My Choice For The Best Angling
Book Of All Time

I always feel that any endeavor is greatly enhanced by knowledge of its tradition and history.  By the end of the year the articles had been read by over a thousand people and is now one of the top results on the web when you google “best books about fishing.”  Here’s a link to the first of five installments: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/01/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time/

Most Popular Posts:  Surprisingly, the most popular freshwater article was one from 2019 on fishing for trout on the scenic Conejos River in southern Colorado, just north of the border with New Mexico.  There were almost 3,000 hits on this post, which is somewhat astounding given the fact it is nowhere near any large population centers plus the Conejos is not one of the more fabled rivers in the state like the Gunnison, Arkansas, and South Platte.   Here is a link to the article: https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/26/solving-the-conejos-river-conundrum/

While I would like to think it must be my captivating literary style that proved so attracting, I have a hunch its success is more likely attributable to the hordes of pesky Texan fly fishing anglers doing research before they invade southern Colorado in the summer and sample the nearest trout stream to the Lone Star State. (Just kidding guys and gals…we love to take your money, but just make sure you return home come September.)

Also worthy of attention is a trio of articles about trying to find fish AND solitude in the waters of South Park around Fairplay, Colorado.  South Park, and particularly the waters of the South Platte, is overrun with anglers from nearby Denver and Colorado Springs.  They do catch some big fish, but it’s often combat-style fishing, especially on weekends.  I wrote about three small creeks where solitude and good fishing, often a rarity, go hand-in-hand. 

The trio of posts has been viewed by over 3,000 people.  Even so I haven’t run into many anglers on any of them this past summer. Take a look: https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

The most popular saltwater post was once again about kayak fishing around Bahia Honda State Park, Florida’s most popular.  I am hoping to get back down to the Keys to update the article this spring. https://hooknfly.com/2018/06/18/bahia-honda-grab-bag-kayak-and-wade-fishing-around-bahia-honda-state-park-florida-keys/

Biggest Fish: There is no doubt that despite however sporting and conservation-minded most anglers are, they like to brag about their biggest fish. I plead guilty. My two freshwater leviathans were, oddly enough, caught in the Everglades where most of my angling is in saltwater. Unbeknown to most anglers, the Everglades is dotted with small freshwater and brackish lakes and canals that often hold big largemouth bass and exotic, colorful peacock bass. I did a fair amount of sleuthing and found several that ended up producing a seven-pound largemouth and five-pound peacock. https://hooknfly.com/2020/11/15/freshwater-bass-fishing-in-the-everglades/

Here in Colorado my two biggest fish, an alpine lake cutthroat and a rainbow from the Arkansas, both went about 18-inches. I won’t mention the bigger ones on which I adroitly executed long-distance releases.

In saltwater, my best catches were two snook in the Everglades, one in January and the other in March.  One that pushed 30-inches was caught in a brackish lake also frequented by largemouth bass. 

Surprise Snook!

The other caught in a narrow tidal creek in the Everglades backcountry was my best of the year at 31-inches. Talk about utter mayhem before I could coax her away from those infernal mangrove roots and to the boat.

Bummers:  Perhaps the biggest bummer was, of course, related to Covid-19, but not in the way I expected.  Fishing is a great way to socially distance and you don’t have to wear a mask most of the time.  No problem there.  What I didn’t anticipate was the virus would be a force that hobbled many  angling and outdoor-related magazines that have published my articles and the death knell for others like the venerable American Angler.  That magazine carried some of my first fishing articles back in the 90s.  When the virus hit many fishing-related businesses either shut down permanently or temporarily and cut back dramatically on their advertising which staggered many angling magazines and book publishers.  As a result, after a piece on Treasure Creek was published by Southwest Fly Fishing in January, only one other of my articles made it into print in 2020, ironically one in Florida Sportsman that dealt with tips on fishing through the Corona crisis!

I also had to grapple with an acute case of sciatica in late summer that cut down on my ability to explore and chase trout in some of those small creeks in rugged Colorado canyons that are dear to my heart.  It reminded me growing old isn’t for the faint of heart.  Fortunately I am on the mend so hope springs eternal, and scenes of backcountry soirées in both Colorado and Florida keep dancing in my head.

Burst Bubbles:  In my spare time one of my favorite endeavors is sleuthing on-line or using Google Maps and other GPS apps to discover remote backcountry creeks in Colorado that just might be loaded with eager trout.  It’s a hit or miss game, about 25% of the time turning up a goose egg.  This year the honor goes to Nutras Creek, a tributary of Cochetopa Creek on the edge of the La Garita Wilderness Area in south central Colorado.  I have had some of the best fishing days over the past few years on Cochetopa and other of its tributaries.  I had driven over Nutras Creek many times, and a couple of cryptic posts online reported some big brook trout hiding in the beaver ponds that dot the stream.  Google Maps confirmed there were literally dozens of good-sized beaver ponds up- and downstream from the access road.  A month later I eagerly made the hour drive from my mobile fish camp only to find most of the beaver ponds were gone, kaput, extinct, washed out! 

While I managed to catch enough brookies in the few small ponds that remained and in the creek, I went home issuing a plethora of epithets directed towards Google Maps for not updating its satellite photos thereby leading me on this wild goose chase!  Fortunately a few weeks later my sleuthing paid off with a Century Club day on another remote creek that shall remain nameless.

The Bloodcurdling:  Spending time in the wilds, either in the Colorado mountains or the Everglades backcountry, you’re bound to have some exciting moments—one reason I carry a Garmin satellite text phone in case I get in trouble.  This year was no exception.  Two of the bloodcurdlers were close encounters of the wildlife kind.  Last year it was a truculent Burmese Python in the Everglades.  This year it was a big 12-foot gator that I stumbled on in my kayak, passing within 15-feet of the big boy as I emerged from a mangrove tunnel into blind turn.  I was close enough to the prehistoric looking creature to be able to count the gnarly teeth protruding from his jaws.  

Close Encounter of the Gator Kind

Fortunately it was a very cool day so he was content to bask in the sun and let this intruder beat a hasty retreat. 

The second close encounter took place a few months later in the Colorado high country.  I was finishing up a successful day of fishing on a remote creek when I heard some noise in the woods above me.  I turned and saw a moose with a giant set of horns ambling my way down the slope. 

Moose On The Loose

Moose are often very belligerent, especially cows with a calf. Again I lucked out as the moose eyed me contemptuously then turned around and proceeded to saunter away insouciantly as if I wasn’t worth paying any heed to.

The most dangerous moment, however, came when I made an ill-advised decision to descend an extremely steep slope with loose scree into a canyon to reach an alluring creek far below. 

On Verge Of Rash Decision

I quickly realized the fix I was in and thought this may be a case where things that go down never come back up.  I was carrying two fishing rods and a small insulated bag with my lunch in it when I lost my footing and started to slide down on my keister.  I quickly jettisoned the lunch bag and tried to grab some brush to stop my descent without breaking my rods or body parts. Finally about twenty feet down I lunged and latched onto some sturdy brush and was able to finally dig my boots in and stop.  I took a deep breath and turned around to chart my course back out, but realized there was no way to go back up. 

Reminder: What Goes Down May Not Come Back Up!

So I carefully picked my way down to the creek and proceeded to have a banner day fishing. Luckily I found a still steep, but more navigable route out later that afternoon. For the rest of the story, see: https://hooknfly.com/2020/10/07/slightly-addled-senior-goes-slip-sliddin-away-down-steep-slope-for-trout/.

Best Laughs:  Closely tied to the blood curdling slide above was the fate of the canvas lunch bag I was carrying.  When I gave it the heave to free up a hand to slow my descent, it started flying down the long steep slope, bouncing off rocks and gaining speed by the second.  Suddenly something started to gush from its sides making it look like a pinwheel as it careened towards the creek.  When I retrieved it 10 minutes later I was delighted to find most everything was intact except for a can of the elixir known as Squirt soda pop that had split open.  That explained the small geyser spewing from the bag on the way down.  It may have been gallows humor, but I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched its flight down the rocky slope. 

The Flying Lunch Bag Survives

Another good guffaw involved the tale of the broken rod. I rarely break a fishing rod while chasing trout. One exception this year was when I left a rod leaning on my SUV then backed out and crushed the tip. Temple Fork Outfitters graciously replaced it with a newer better model at a modest cost for shipping. But in the Everglades I average three broken rods a year which I attribute to much larger fish that I tangle with in tight quarters in mangrove tunnels, often in my kayak. Certainly could not be lack of skill. This year the broken rod tale was under much different circumstances. I was on an outing with my accomplished fishing friend from Georgia, Steve Keeble. We were on a quest for snook in my Gheenoe in the Everglades backcountry. We caught plenty of snook but then decided to take a breather in a slow-moving backwater off the main channel. It was loaded with forage fish, and soon we started to see black tip shark cruising everywhere. I suggested we have a little fun, so chunked up a ladyfish and baited it on my stoutest rod I typically use for large tarpon. I handed it to Steve, and a shark quickly gulped the savory meal. I yelled “set it hard,” which Steve dutifully did, which was followed by a loud crack as the rod snapped in half.

Steve exhibited his considerable angling skill by continuing to fight and land the truculent critter with half a rod as I doubled over with laughter. Of course the joke was on me with the broken rod, which Steve graciously replaced.

Biggest Surprise: My biggest—and most pleasant—surprises all came on freshwater lakes in the Everglades. Most of my fishing in the Glades is done in tidal creeks or the Everglades backcountry where the water is salty. When the Corona virus hit south Florida, mobs of anglers sans masks or any attempt at social distancing descended from the Miami area and Fort Meyers, where public boat ramps had been closed, on our local boat ramp on Chokoloskee Island. One morning at one point a line of over 50 boats were waiting to launch.

Knucklehead Invasion

Not wanting to tempt fate or run into the hordes in the backcountry, I decided to investigate some of the nearby freshwater lakes inland that usually receive little pressure.  Boy I am sure glad I did.  As noted above, over a period from late March until early April I caught and released some big largemouth and peacock bass and a hefty snook that had somehow found her way into a lake just off the Tamiami Trail.  Who knows how she got there as there were no canals or creeks leading into the lake, but who am I to complain!

I received another pleasant surprise on the South Fork of the South Platte later that summer back in Colorado.  I had set out to fish the South Fork in the flatlands of South Park, but when I got there the stream was blown out, muddy water filling it from bank-to-bank.  Undaunted, I decided to drive the some 20 miles up towards historic Weston Pass to fish some beaver ponds on the South Fork headwaters.   Posts from local fly shops said the fishing there was challenging as the ponds were overgrown with brush, however still fun for small brookies but nothing else.  The ponds were definitely there, stretching for miles along the creek, and the brookies were eager.  But I had a hunch the attractive short stretches of open running water between the ponds might just harbor some bigger fish…and they did.  I managed to catch several handsome cutthroats, one that went 15-inches.  Definitely a satisfying surprise! https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/.

Birthday Century Club:  One of my annual traditions is to take a multi-day solo high-country fishing trip in Colorado on my birthday in late July.  And part of that tradition is to see if I can catch as many fish as my years on this planet, which in 2020 were 72.  I had my sights set on a comely little creek hidden in a canyon that I had only recently discovered last year and had fished but once.  Not only did that little jewel produce fish in numbers—I caught and released over 100 wild trout thus qualifying for the Century Club—but my efforts were rewarded with a high-country slam–a cutthroat, brown, and brookie, with the cutt and brownie coming in as a double!  Not sure how many more years I can make a trek like that, so this one was all the more to savor.

Most Beautiful Fish:  The beautiful coloration and intricate patterns fish sport never cease to amaze me, nature seemingly able to exceed anything thing I could imagine.  In freshwater this year the honors went to the stunning cutthroat trout of Lower Sand Lake and the gorgeous Arkansas River rainbow trout, the last fish I caught late in December.  On the saltwater side, it was hard to beat the riotously colored Peacock Bass and Atomic Sunfish (AKA Mayan Cichlids) that I fooled on a freshwater lake in the Everglades. 

Old Dog, New Tricks: The older I get, the more I get set in my ways, for example, in the species of fish that I chase and the techniques that I employ to catch them. So it was with the antediluvian long-nose gar that proliferate in the brackish water of Everglades tidal creeks, canals, and ponds. I had hooked many a gar while chasing snook and redfish, but never landed one. I considered them a nuisance despite their fighting ability. Gar have long bony mouths filled with hundreds of sharp little teeth that make them extraordinarily difficult to hook. They are shunned by most sport anglers because of the challenge hooking them as well as their truculent tendency of trying to bite one if hooked. They are reportedly good to eat but nearly impossible to clean due to armor-like scales. But one day in February when I ran into a huge school of spawning gar and hooked and lost fish after fish, I vowed to master the fine art of catching the toothy torpedoes. Back home I found a number of articles by good ole boys from the South who actually specialize in gar fishing. I learned that I needed some specialized lures to catch these prehistoric fish. These off-beat lures, which are made out of unraveled nylon rope, have no hooks at all but rely on the nylon fabric to ensnare those needle-sharp teeth. Not available at local tackle shops, I crafted a few of my own that I thought turned out rather well.

Homemade Gar Lures, Sans Hooks

On my very first day on the water with one of my handsome creations I cast with extreme confidence towards a gaggle of gar porpoising on the surface in a canal along the Tamiami trail. Something erupted from the water, and I was astounded to see it was a giant snook that had inhaled the lure. Unfortunately, since the lure had no hooks, the snook had to merely shake her head and was soon cruising away scot free. To make matters worse, I also had a tough time hanging onto the gar that smashed the lure time and again. So it was back to the drawing boards where on the advice of another gar hunter on-line, I added a small trailing treble hook and didn’t friz out the nylon . That would prove to be the answer. On my next outing I hooked dozens of feisty gar and managed to land several as substantiated by the photo below. The lure in the middle shows the results of grappling with the nasty gar teeth. Guess it goes to prove that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks! For the full story of chasing the prehistoric gar, see https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/.

Most Scenic:  The little secret creek mentioned above in the Birthday Century Club was hands down the winner of most scenic.  As I approached the canyon rim an incredible scene opened before me, reminding me of the mythical Shangri La.  See for yourself!

Into The Future—2021 And Beyond: I’m anticipating 2021 with high hopes. Only a few days into the New Year, I’ve already caught my first fish, a nice brownie from the Arkansas River on an icy cold day featuring my rod guides clogged with ice. I also got in some practice on my patented long-distance releases, magnanimously freeing a couple of bruisers.

First Fish Of The New Year!

Now one of my readers has just invited me to do some ice fishing for big trout in frozen Antero Reservoir located in frigid South Park (Antero hit 50 below zero a couple of weeks ago!).  I haven’t ice fished for 15 years since doing so with my son Matthew when he was in high school.  Should be interesting and will probably spur a hasty return to Florida!

My first order of business will be to finish the Paddlers Fishing Guide To The Everglades that in 2020 I signed a contract to write.  The publisher will be Wild Adventures Press, one of the leading fishing guide producers.  I’m already thinking about marketing the book, especially in a time of Covid-19.  I had my first trial run making a presentation to the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers Club out of Sarasota.  My friend Jim Cannon, a club member, invited me to host a Zoom meeting focusing on some of my favorite kayak fishing creeks in the Everglades.  It was great fun answering questions from the 30 or so members, and the positive response was very heartening as witnessed by this very kind letter from the club’s president:

Chris—I have one word to describe your presentation to our club.  OUTSTANDING.  I was telling Ethan earlier today that your presentation was one of the top two or three that I can remember in the ten years I have been a member of MCFF.  Your information, diagrams, stories, and friendly demeanor, along with some great pics, made for an awesome evening….Hope to meet you in person in the near future.  Tight lines.  Ken B. 

If any of my readers would like me to make a Zoom presentation to your fishing or kayaking group on either fly fishing for trout in Colorado or saltwater fishing in the Everglades, I would be happy delighted to oblige.  It’s been a reel…er…real treat to meet so many fine people and avid anglers over the past five years through my blog, and I look forward to more in 2021. I’ll be adhering to the following New Year’s Resolution: